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One Way Better Place Wins In Israel: Actual Customer Service

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2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

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After five weeks driving a Better Place electric car in Israel, I'm gaining a deeper insight into the company's plans.

The Better Place annual subscription model, including service and support, costs more than the U.S. practice of buying an electric car outright and charging it at home.

How customers feel about this subscription payment rests on how good the extra service is.

Looking back on the entire process of evaluating and buying the car, it is difficult for me to fault Better Place on customer service.

I've never come across a car company that followed up and wanted to hear from me after I drove the new car off the lot, unless I was about to spend money on servicing.

Better Place seems to be completely different.

Pain and suffering

To call that unusual in Israel would be a huge understatement. What usually passes for "customer service" here is an experience roughly like trying to cancel a cell-phone contract with an operator in another country while having dental work done.

Two examples:

  • My wife was assured on the phone that we were allowed four free video-on-demand movies. We watched one, it showed up on the bill anyhow, and it took half an hour of haggling to get the charge reversed.
  • Having an Israeli service provider arrive during the promised half-day window is just like winning American Idol: I assume that it does happen, but not to very many people.

Any Israeli will recognize those stories, and chime in with far more. Which brings us to Better Place.

Cutaway of Renault Fluence ZE electric car used by Better Place, with battery pack behind rear seat

Cutaway of Renault Fluence ZE electric car used by Better Place, with battery pack behind rear seat

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My first contact with the company was a well-rehearsed show at their visitor center, on a rainy January evening after work hours. It certainly didn't feel like a sales pitch--and perhaps it was more powerful for that.

Looking for the right customers

Following a comprehensive test drive on public roads, the next step was for Better Place to qualify me. How many miles do I routinely drive per day? Do I drive a fixed route? How many miles do I drive per year? Do I have my own, dedicated off-road parking spot?

Better Place is not interested in selling cars to customers who don't fit these requirements. In talking with them multiple times, I also came to understand how battery switching is not viewed as a regular way to add power to the car.

From the company's point of view, its very best customers will be high-mileage drivers who commute 60 to 80 miles each way between two fixed sites where Better Place can install a charging station (at both ends). High-mileage traveling salesmen with no fixed route, for example, are not ideal.

Inspections at home and work

Standard Better Place home charging station

Standard Better Place home charging station

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Once a customer is qualified, and decides to go forward with the contract, he or she pays a $500 (₪2,000) refundable deposit. This results in an inspection at the customer's home, and for higher-mileage drivers, the workplace as well.

For me, the communication with Better Place was faultless throughout this process. Calls were returned on time; email was used when requested; direct cell-phone numbers were given if needed.

And quite a lot of communication was needed.

Persuading the committee

In urban Israel, the majority of people live in multiple dwellings, either owning or renting. Buildings all have committee of residents and owners who deal with communal issues. This committee has to give permission for the installation of a charging point--meaning there are many steps to installing each charging station.

Better Place aims to install a completely separate connection to the Israeli Electricity Company (IEC): only Better Place will receive the electricity bill for a car.

In practice, however, the IEC is a slow and cumbersome bureaucracy. In my case, it was unable to supply a new connection and meter quickly enough. In the intervening period, Better Place has promised to refund to the building--via me--an amount of money that will cover the car's charging.


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Comments (5)
  1. Interesting.
    I didn't know that some charging stations reduced their output if two cars are attached.
     
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  2. Regardless of their customer service, the reason I would never invest in a company with this business model is the same exact reason I would never invest in the Chevy Volt, were it a standalone company : they both depend completely for their success on the continued existence of very expensive batteries, both in terms of initial costs, as well as overall lifespan costs.I simply don't believe that that situation will continue, certainly not for the extended period required for a company like this to recoup its borrowed capital.
     
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  3. Of course the service is great, all new companies put on a show for customers. It's like opening a new store, the staff are attentive and the service is fantastic but a few months later the store settles down to a daily pattern of operation. The test for Better Place is, will they maintain their level of service over time and can they maintain the current level of service as their customers grow in number.
     
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  4. The story refers BP's switching stations, which are for battery swaps, but only mentions getting recharged. Did he do any swapping? Without it, do you need all the other fuss and bother that comes with BP?
     
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  5. I have swapped 6 times now. Two were on the way to new destinations in Jerusalem and were insurance against not being able to charge my car (I was able to charge both times). The others were generally not necessary. I do have some trips coming up which will absolutely need switches however.
     
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